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VH1 Takes a Spirited Look at the '70s

August 19, 1996|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robin Williams has said that if you remember the '60s, you weren't really there.

The '70s, though, are a different matter: If you were there, you remember all too well. Hence the biggest problem with "VH1 Presents the '70s," a five-part documentary series told in part with music from the decade, starting tonight.

Odds are pretty good that if you watch the boomer-driven VH1, you came of age during the '70s and carry its memories with you--from Kent State horrors to disco decadence. So what can this tell you that you don't already know about Watergate? Or the Bee Gees? Or women's liberation? Or "No Nukes"? Or forced busing?

And you're certainly familiar with the series' core premise, that the '70s were actually two decades. The first half, as seen here, was devoted to attempts (in spirit, at least) at fulfilling the dreams and revolutions of the '60s, the second given over (in the flesh) to wanton self-fulfillment--before drugs stopped being recreational and sex started being deadly.

The dividing line: the mid-'70s, when Nixon resigned and we withdrew from Vietnam. Without Tricky Dick to kick around any more and without the antiwar movement to galvanize the young, there was nothing left to do but est, cocaine and "The Hustle."

That's simplification and generalization, of course. But the case is laid out effectively, if obviously, in the first four segments.

*

The strength of the series is in the "witness" observations of a solid cast of figures--mostly musicians (Jackson Browne, Alice Cooper, David Bowie and KISS' Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, among them), complemented by such erudite social critics as Camille Paglia, film director Penelope Spheeris and former groupie Pamela DesBarres.

The show is full of highlights. Period TV clips--news, music performance and pointed excerpts from programs ranging from "All in the Family" to "Saturday Night Live" skits--illustrate and reflect the times.

The failure lies, though, in what is not seen. Somehow, the producers seem to have very selective memories of their own.

The most glaring example is that in the issue of race relations, there is not a single mention of "Roots," the landmark TV miniseries (from the equally groundbreaking book by Alex Haley). The airing was an event that galvanized and defined the cultural mind-set about ethnicity.

Instead, there's a clip from "The Jeffersons" tied to discussion of the emerging black middle class--certainly appropriate, but hardly a substitute for Kunta Kinte's saga.

Among the many other era-defining elements that are either entirely omitted or given at best passing reference: "Mary Tyler Moore," "The Brady Bunch," "Jaws," "Star Wars," Nixon in China, the bicentennial celebration, the Fonz, Jesus Freaks, Hare Krishnas, the Munich Olympics, airline hijackings, Bobby Riggs versus Billie Jean King, Reggie Jackson and pet rocks.

* "VH1 Presents the '70s" airs in hour installments, tonight through Friday at 5 and 8:30, with additional showings on the weekend.

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